Digital Accessibility Training and a Gold Standard maturity model at the University of Derby

The University of Derby has a long-standing commitment to accessibility and inclusion, which it has embedded successfully within its strategy, policy, and processes. 

University of Derby logo showing illustration of mountains within the logoIn recent years the university has made big steps in embedding inclusion, including establishing its institutional Digital Learning Baselines and staff development training programmes focused on digital practice.

"However," says John Hill, the University of Derby's Head of Digital Learning, "we recognised that addressing accessibility has no finishing line to cross and requires ongoing commitment."

This served as the catalyst for the university to seek the expertise of an external organisation to "both support and challenge us to keep refining our approaches and raising standards," says John.

More broadly, through its relationship with Policy Connect, the University of Derby has also been at the forefront of making sector-wide policy recommendations that have uncovered the reasons for continued disparity in higher education as it relates to the quality of disabled students’ experience and their attainment, continuation and graduate outcomes. 

In 2020, the Higher Education Commission, with Policy Connect and the University of Derby, published the report, Arriving at Thriving: Learning from disabled students to ensure access for all. 

Since then, combined with the work completed by Digital Solutions and Services colleagues with AbilityNet, the University has embedded the recommendations and succeeded in eliminating both the continuation and attainment gaps for students with a disability, as well as enhancing their experience more broadly. 

Credible, high-quality disability training

Three students sitting on lawn on campus

The University of Derby initially brought in AbilityNet to enhance its academic staff development offer via a collection of high-quality online eLearning courses.

The 'Accessibility and Me' eLearning training modules provided by AbilityNet were embedded in the university's online learning platform for staff to complete in their own time.

Modules introduce content authors to accessibility requirements and explore key considerations for a range of disabilities, impairments and conditions.

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Mandatory eLearning about disability

The 'Accessibility and Me' eLearning is now a mandatory requirement for all academic staff, to ensure they are aware of the responsibility they have for creating accessible content and why.

More than 1200 colleagues have completed the course so far. 

Feedback from the course has included:

  • “It has instilled or created certain sensitivities in me that I will apply in a myriad of ways, once the teaching for the year starts up again”. 
  • “It prompted me to review my materials and improve the accessibility”. 
  • “It's made me reflect more on how everyone will have different needs and requirements and to be mindful of that”.
  • “I thought it was a brilliant course, in particular the case studies giving someone else’s view of how a something is a barrier for them and why, but also the alternatives we could do to support them.”

Working with AbilityNet and McNaught Consultancy on the Digital Maturity Model

Following the successful rollout of Accessibility and Me online learning modules, the university then asked AbilityNet and its education partner, McNaught Consultancy, to conduct the Higher Education Digital Accessibility Maturity Model guided assessment, to gauge the university's level of digital accessibility maturity.

"As an institution," says John, "we had implemented a range of positive initiatives, but wanted to learn and reflect on how we were performing in providing an accessible experience to staff and students, which would hopefully inform further enhancements."

Rather than test the accessibility of individual apps and websites, the Maturity Model looks at how well an organisation is doing across a range of activities, including strategy and structure, disabled user voice, staff support and training, student support and experience, course level accessibility, compliance checking and monitoring, and governance and accessibility toolkits.

Senior managers must commit to accessibility

A key recommendation highlighted early in the Arriving at Thriving report was the need for a senior leader in every provider to take on the responsibility and accountability for driving change to improve the experiences of disabled students at their institution. 

This recommendation has been enacted at Derby not only through the Vice-Chancellor’s own responsibilities, but also through collaborative and collective responsibility across her senior leadership, particularly through the accountability held by Professor Keith McLay (Provost, Learning and Teaching) and his teams. This commitment is also seen across levels of programme and module leadership. It has been key to the University succeeding in eliminating the continuation and attainment gaps for students with a disability.

Professor Kathryn Mitchell CBE DL said, "Focusing on a commitment from all levels of leadership, as well as centring the student voice and experience in this work, is critical if we are to achieve greater progress. It is essential that we continue to take a holistic, whole system approach to removing barriers for disabled students, recognising that the challenges they face are administrative and technical, not intellectual."

To maximise the impact of the Maturity Model investigations, John's team engaged with senior stakeholders from across the university's different departments, ensuring those that could influence change would be engaged directly with the expertise from AbilityNet and McNaught Consultancy.

Having senior representatives involved from the outset ensured that the project's findings and actions would translate into institutional best practice and that the project would be held to account by the results.

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Analysing ways of working

"AbilityNet and McNaught Consultancy were able to collate and analyse responses, providing opportunities for discussion and debate," says John. Taking these findings into account, the project team was able to identify the digital accessibility maturity priorities. The project team then developed and agreed an action plan for the next 12 months to make enhancements. University library or corridor area with students walking through the walkway

Claire Gardener, formerly Senior Learning Technologist, University of Derby), who worked on the project alongside John, noted a key benefit of working with AbilityNet and McNaught Consultancy on this project:

"Having a clear framework to work through and probing questions prompted fresh reflection and impetus to challenge ourselves on what enhancements could be made," says Claire, "but also to reflect on the successes that were taken for granted that should be communicated and celebrated more widely across the institution."

John and Claire also noted that having AbilityNet & McNaught Consultancy providing external expertise in developing the action plan gave it more credibility and gave them encouragement and confidence in driving the plan onwards. 

"Developing an action plan dedicated purely to the digital accessibility agenda was very helpful in ensuring a collective approach to moving work forward holistically rather than as a component of other activity," notes Claire.

Derby achieves Gold for digital inclusion

So, what were the findings from the Maturity Model project within the University of Derby?

The Maturity Model includes a series of statements to meet standards needed on a five-point scale between 'not in place' and 'fully implemented'. Having reviewed all areas the Model provides an overall maturity score between unbadged, bronze, silver, and gold.

Medal showing 'AbilityNet McNaught Digital Accessibility Maturity 2022 - 2025 GOLD'The University is delighted to have achieved Gold:

“We wanted to be able to measure our progress in a tangible way. This is exactly what the AbilityNet/McNaught Maturity model gave us – all in the context and language of learning and teaching," John says.

The whole process encouraged collaboration and buy-in at different levels in the organisation, something that is essential in providing a sense of ownership and accountability.

Claire Gardener (formerly Senior Learning Technologist, University of Derby), noted:

"Something as far reaching and multi-layered as digital accessibility can leave you with 'analysis paralysis' – so many relevant elements that you have no idea where to begin," Claire continues.

The facilitated session with AbilityNet and McNaught Consultancy and the subsequent report with recommendations "really helped us focus and prioritise," Claire says. 

By using the Digital Accessibility Maturity Model to identify gaps and priorities, the team at the University of Derby has successfully translated accessibility to institutional values and processes.

"No university can guarantee an infallible experience for every student. What matters is that when problems occur accountability is clear, and institutional learning takes place. This is what we mean by accessibility maturity,” says Amy Low, AbilityNet's Service Delivery Director.

Senior managers must commit to accessibility

The Maturity Model has helped the university to better understand how to develop its accessibility, and has reinforced the need for collective institutional commitment to support inclusive practice. To embed this, senior leaders must lead the way.

In addition to the mandatory disability inclusion training for academic staff, digital accessibility is now embedded in the university's Equality Impact Analysis process that is conducted on relevant university projects and policy proposals.

Accessibility consideration is also embedded in its procurement processes. Each module in the university's virtual learning environment (VLE) has had a course level accessibility statement introduced that can be customised by each module leader. 

Find out more about leadership support for digital accessibility in our 2022 Attitudes to Digital Accessibility report

Making future accessibility plans

The university has also recently redesigned the student portal interface to improve its digital accessibility. Planning is also underway for these next initiatives:

  1. Making accessibility a central pillar of the VLE Replacement Project, with accessibility core to staff training and adoption.
  2. Launching a new staff online eLearning course from AbilityNet: Creating Accessible Content in Microsoft Office 365.
  3. Providing accessibility courses to students to bring accessibility knowledge and capability in to the workplace and fulfil their role as game changers for industry. 

How AbilityNet can help

If you're unsure as to where your institution is with digital accessibility maturity, AbilityNet's HE Maturity Model can be a great place to start.

The process will help you to create a roadmap for digital accessibility, throughout your organisation. 

Download the free HE and FE Maturity Model

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